In the Decision Over Abortion, How Much Say Should the Guy Have?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader in the email below, Lily, might be aghast by the scene above from Girls, where Mimi-Rose casually tells Adam she just aborted his would-be child. Then again, the two have only been dating for seven weeks, so that might mitigate Lily’s concerns here:

If a couple has been in some sort of committed partnership—dating a while, cohabitating, married—I think that the man’s opinions and wants should be taken into consideration when it comes to abortion. Allowed to absolutely trump the woman’s? No. But if you help to create what could potentially become a human being, then you should be part of he decision to end it.

Here are other aspects of the idea that abortion should be the pregnant woman’s—and only the pregnant woman’s—choice:

(1) If the fathers of the fetuses are excluded from participating in an abortion decision that carries the implication that they are irrelevant. And if they are irrelevant then they are excused from any responsibility for the consequences of their actions. That’s not good for society as a whole.

(2) Men and women can’t have complete equality when it comes to pregnancy because women carry children. But if women can make the choice to either be a parent or not (i.e., carry the pregnancy or not), then how is it fair that men don’t have a similar choice? How is it fair to force a man to provide financial child support if the woman he impregnated chooses to keep and rear a child?

All the forgoing said: If anyone—male or female—isn’t yet ready to or doesn’t ever want to be a parent, they should take personal responsibility for buying and using effective birth control. I’m at the point where I think it would be better for society to provide birth control gratis for any adult who wants it. I think that’s the lesser evil than bringing a child into the world who isn’t wanted.

Lily’s comments made me think of this recent email from Tony:

I greatly appreciate you sharing the varied perspectives of those affected by abortion, in light of the Supreme Court’s recent Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision. I wanted to share my own experience with abortion, as a man’s perspective is not often heard.  

Several years ago, I met a woman just a few months after I returned to London following a stint in America, my home country, for work. I fell for Jenny (a pseudonym) from the start—her cherubic smile and silky hair warmed my heart. Above all, we shared a love for life and a determination to leave the world a better place than we found it. I felt as though Jenny understood me in a way that few others did.

We spoke on the phone each night after work and spent the weekends together, exploring London and enjoying each other’s company. Like most sexually active couples, we did talk about what might happen if she fell pregnant and we both said we would want to keep the baby. Little did I know how timely that conversation would prove to be.

One day, Jenny rang me to say she had a dizzy spell and felt nauseous. When she added that she had nausea for a couple of days, I broke into a sweat and my pulse raced. I suggested that she take a pregnancy test. She was on the pill, but I knew there were no guarantees.

Jenny rang me as soon as she had a chance to take the test. “I think I'm pregnant,” she said. Those words hit me like a sledgehammer. Her next words left me trembling: “I’ve decided to have an abortion.”

I offered to come over so that we could talk things through. “There's nothing more to say,” she said icily. I tried to reply but she cut me off. “I don't want this baby and it’s my choice to make. Do you understand me?”

It was hard enough to make sense of her being pregnant, let alone the fact that I had no say in the future of a child that I helped create.  As scared as I was, I believed this was a child—my child—and I wanted to do all I could for it.   

As long as Jenny and I could talk, I believed, there was hope. We continued to talk and there were moments when I felt I might be persuading her to reconsider, such as when she asked how we might make things work to raise a baby. I assured her that I would be there for her and that we could find a way to give our child a meaningful life.

I became hopeful, until she said: “I would keep the baby if I were swept off my feet in love, but I’m not. The feeling is either there or it isn’t, and it’s not. I’m sorry.”

I couldn’t help but question myself, wondering what I could have done or said that could have made her feel differently. But I knew there was nothing I could do to stop her from going through with an abortion; it was her legal right.

Becoming a parent is supposed to be one of the most exciting—and of course scary—moments in the journey of life, and losing a child is said to be one of the worst. Now, I found myself tasting both sensations at once. I felt alone in a sea of pain, desperate to keep afloat.

Despite my best efforts, Jenny went through with the abortion. The pregnancy was over and, weeks later, so was our relationship.

Wounds do heal over time—even deep ones—but scars remain. Ten years later, I find myself incredibly blessed with a beautiful, bright and loving wife, a 3.5 year-old son and a 1.5 year-old daughter. At times, I can’t help but look into my children’s happy, vibrant eyes and wonder what their older brother or sister might have been like.

Sadly, my story is not unique; other men have experienced the same anguish. Men and women both have a role to play in creating life and raising children, but today’s laws, and the debates around them, don’t reflect that. Women alone decide whether to end a pregnancy, even though both parents bear responsibility when women decide to continue a pregnancy. Perhaps one way forward might be to resolve this inconsistency and address abortion, like parenthood, as a family issue. Men should have a chance to be heard.

Update: Here’s a followup from Tony (who, by the way, wrote a memoir about abortion, A Father’s Choice):

Regarding Lily’s second question on whether or not men should have the choice to be a parent, I think this is perhaps the biggest question of all if we accept that an abortion is an issue of reproductive rights. In my mind, there is a logical inconsistency in that women alone have the right to end a pregnancy, but responsibility is shared between both parents when women choose to continue a pregnancy. This creates a problem should a woman want a child that a man does not.

The Observer recently reported that, in Sweden, the youth league of the Liberal party recently proposed to change legislation that enabled men to decline parental responsibilities during the same period of time that a woman has the right to have an abortion (by which she declines parental responsibilities). I can’t say I fully agree with this legislation, but that’s because I believe that both parents should have recognised roles from the outset. Perhaps if society recognised the roles of both parents from the outset (and that includes giving men some kind of say in abortion), more men—and women—would take greater care when choosing sexual partners (as there is always risk of pregnancy) and be more involved in their children’s lives.

I recognise that an argument against my point is that women take significant risks when they fall pregnant, along with major changes in their bodies. The issue for me, though, comes back to the issue of choice. If abortion rights are simply a matter of “my body, my choice,” then women alone are making the choice to bring a new life into a world, and it would logically follow that they would accept the consequences of that choice (i.e., a baby).  

Disagree with that logic? Send us a note and we’ll post. Here’s a note from a reader who prefers to use the pseudonym IANAL (“an old Usenet initialism for ‘I am not a lawyer,’” she writes). IANAL quotes our first reader, Lily:

(2) Men and women can’t have complete equality when it comes to pregnancy because women carry children. But if women can make the choice to either be a parent or not (i.e., carry the pregnancy or not), then how is it fair that men don’t have a similar choice? How is it fair to force a man to provide financial child support if the woman he impregnated chooses to keep and rear a child?

The analogy that fits my assessment of abortion best is one to contract law: It is possible for parties to a contract to have different rights at different times. If we assume the contract is made when the parties agree to have sex, then the man’s right to choose exists until the possibility of conception. He has the right to choose to control his own reproductive system: He can use a condom, he can get a vasectomy, or whatever other form of contraception is within his control and affects only his own body.

Most of his rights end there and his responsibilities adhere: He has become responsible for financial support of any child born as a result of the agreement to have sex, if the woman chooses to birth a child and raise it herself. He does retain one right—the right of first refusal if the woman chooses to birth a child and then give it up for adoption.  

A woman’s choices are different and have a different duration.  She can choose from pre-conception contraception, but also from post-conception options, which include the morning-after contraception, abortion, and giving up her rights through adoption.  

The reason this seems fair to me is that women and men have different risks from sex and pregnancy, so therefore they may have different rights and responsibilities. Your question points out the pregnancy part but women can suffer lifelong health problems arising out of pregnancy, not just the 9 months plus labor implied by “women carry children.”

Tony replies to IANAL:

The reader citing contract law seems to be using circular logic: In essence, he or she argues that women have the option of abortion because abortion is a legally available option. Just because something is legally available doesn’t mean that it’s right, just as the fact that something isn’t legal doesn’t mean that it is necessarily wrong. Abortion itself was illegal in many U.S. states until Roe v Wade, and clearly those who support abortion rights would argue that the illegality of abortion was wrong. Laws do change over time, as Roe v Wade demonstrates, which makes the question of whether men should have a legally equivalent option (abstaining from parental responsibilities) a valid one to ask and test.

One could argue that a social contract applies—an implicit agreement between two people in the event of something happening, like an unplanned pregnancy. However, that too becomes shaky if both parties make one choice in theory (to keep a baby) that becomes another choice in practice (to have an abortion).  

The point about the use of contraception is also shaky, because the same argument applies to women as well. Unfortunately, no form of contraception is 100% effective, which is a point that many pro-choice supporters make to justify the availability of abortion.  

As long as abortion is framed as an issue of reproductive rights, or a matter of a woman’s choice over her own body, then it’s hard to see how a man can be expected to bear the consequences of that choice.  With choice comes responsibility. Of course there are risks that come with pregnancy, but women choosing to continue a pregnancy accept those risks and accept the outcome: a baby.  

To be clear, I personally believe that fathers need a greater role—and more responsibilities—in their children’s lives. I have no greater joy than seeing my two young children grow up and I want to be the best father I can be for them. The point of my argument is to show that abortion is more than an issue of reproductive rights, or “my body, my choice.” Abortion affects men as well as women, but much of the discussion around this issue doesn’t reflect that. Perhaps if it did—or, perhaps if more was done to help men recognise that they too can be affected by abortion, then more men would see their responsibilities from the outset and do their best to be good fathers.   

IANAL replies to Tony:

I’m going to make the bodily autonomy argument, and additionally suggest that Tony doesn’t understand the contract analogy (which is an analogy, not a proposal to use contract law to adjudicate the rights of the parties).

Men and women are different and therefore have different opportunities (choices, rights), different consequences (and duties, responsibilities), and different risks. Merely saying that women have choice about abortion or pregnancy and therefore have to accept the consequences of carrying a child to term restates my analogy; it doesn’t contradict it. Because women literally risk lifetime health problems and death in pregnancy and childbirth (yes, it’s rare; doesn't mitigate that risk for the individual), they have an additional right: the right to choose or refuse those risks.

Tony writes: “As long as abortion is framed as an issue of reproductive rights, or a matter of a woman’s choice over her own body, then it’s hard to see how a man can be expected to bear the consequences of that choice.”

It’s not hard for me: the support obligation is owed to the child, which is a Schroedinger’s child until the woman makes her decision. Any argument for changing the timing of rights elapsing (such as any proposal to give men a legally-enforceable opt-out for support or measure of control over the decision whether to abort) might be possible, but the complexities of it daunt me. Are men supposed to register with a government agency every time they have sex, naming the woman involved, so that they can be notified if she becomes pregnant and they might have rights to exercise? That’s a level of government oversight I doubt would be acceptable to most Americans.

And if Tony thinks there is little acknowledgement that men are affected by abortion, he is not paying attention. It’s everywhere, from MRAs to the doctors (all men, as far as I can tell by a quick search) who have been killed because they perform abortions.  

One more round, from Tony:

I find IANAL’s argument problematic for several reasons.

First, she misunderstands what I meant by a “social contract.” I did not mean applying contract law to every relationship, but rather that people in a relationship have a set of expectations that govern their relationship and how they interact with each other. A social contract, as I wrote, is an implicit understanding.

Second, IANAL argues that women have been given a legal right to abortion given the higher risks a woman faces, but that also means that women who continue their pregnancy accept those risks as well as the result of that pregnancy: A baby.  As IANAL points out, men’s legal limit of choice today ends at the point of conception. However, as abortion itself demonstrates, limits imposed by law can change. If the window of decision can be moved in law from the point of conception to another defined point in pregnancy for women, then laws can also change the window of decision for men. Just because something is unlawful does not mean that it is not right, which is why laws change over time.

Also, IANAL makes an interesting point likening pregnancy to “Schroedinger's baby,” which itself refers the idea of “Schroedinger's cat,” a thought experiment for quantum mechanics by Erwin Schroedinger, an Austrian physicist, to assess whether an entity (in this case, a cat in a sealed steel box with radioactive material, poison, and a Geiger counter) can be both alive and dead at once until the box is opened. (National Geographic provides an overview here.)  I understand IANAL’s argument to be that the unborn baby is both dead and alive—in multiple states—until the woman decides whether or not to continue her pregnancy.

Schrodinger argued that the cat couldn’t be both alive and dead; it was one or the other, regardless of whether we outside the box knew which one it was. Our inability to observe something does not mean something is not in a given state (e.g., dead or alive in this case). Moreover, the ready availability of ultrasound and other technologies provide crystal clear observations that make Schroedinger’s cat (or Schroedinger’s baby) irrelevant. The unborn child is clearly alive, even at the earliest stages of pregnancy (foetal heartbeats can be detected as soon as the sixth week). The PBS programme “Nine Months That Made You” goes into some depth on just how alive an unborn child really is.

I agree with IANAL’s point that it would be hard to put in place policies that give men greater say, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t find a way (after all, we managed to put a man on the moon!). I don’t yet have an answer on how to do this—what it might look like—where a man wants a baby that a woman does not. I hope that my story, however, can stimulate the discussion that helps us as a society find ways of doing that. I think the answer might depend on gestation of the unborn baby. For babies past the point of viability, for example, I see no reason why such babies can’t be delivered (born alive rather than aborted) at the point a woman wants an abortion, and then raised by the father.

That said, the issue of paternal liability for a child is actually easier. In these cases, the mother wanting to claim paternal support has already identified the father and has enough information to make her claim. In these cases, the laws can be remedied, as proposed in Sweden, to enable fathers to decline this responsibility within defined periods of pregnancy (more or less mirroring the time women can choose to have an abortion)  I know there are far bigger questions around this in terms of responsibility for the baby, but my point is that the argument for abortion around autonomy itself takes us beyond those questions to another stage altogether.

Finally, IANAL’s point on the acknowledged effects of abortion on men is also unclear. I can assure you from firsthand experience that the effects of abortion on men aren’t widely recognised. In fact, many abortion rights supporters go so far as to say that men should have no place to comment within the discussion at all (unless those men agree with those supporters), going back to the basic idea of “my body, my choice.”  Such an approach disregards the life-changing trauma of losing a child in such a deliberate way can have and, ironically, distances men from the responsibilities that IANAL is trying to attach them to (one of the unintended consequences of framing abortion as a women’s issue—rather than a family issue—is that it creates an environment that distances men from the role of parent and carer).  IANAL and others wanting to better understand how abortion can affect men may find the book I wrote about my own experience, A Father’s Choice, a helpful read.

If you’re interested in more male perspectives from our long and ongoing abortion series in Notes, go here, here, and here.